Judge Adam Arseneau found that watching Circle of Iron felt just like wearing one.
"Tie two birds together. Even though they have four wings, they cannot fly."
Based on a screenplay penned by the legendary Bruce Lee, Circle of Iron is a spiritual martial arts opus in a fantastic land, an introspective Zen adventure of enlightenment and butt-kicking, inspired by an adventure epic that Lee never lived to see finished.
Created after Lee's death as a posthumous tribute to the martial arts master and his cinematic vision, Circle of Iron makes it clear that the film's creators must have really hated the poor man's guts.
Just kidding. Well, sort of.
Facts of the Case
In a mystical and spiritual land, a martial arts contest is underway to elect a champion for a sacred quest. The combatants from various schools fight honorably to see which is the strongest among them, but a fierce unknown newcomer named Cord the Seeker (Jeff Cooper, Dallas) suddenly appears. He fights well, but is soon disqualified for his rule-breaking. Angrily, he insists that he is the strongest and should be tasked with the quest—to retrieve the legendary Book of All Knowledge from the ruthless and dangerous wizard Zetan (Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones). The Book of All Knowledge is said to contain (you guessed it) all the knowledge in the universe.
Cord's request to be the champion is soundly denied. He belongs to no school, holds allegiance to no man other than his own desire. He is rough and undisciplined and has no measure of control, and is therefore unsuitable to defeat someone as mighty as Zetan. But when the elected champion falls in battle, Cord takes his sacred medallion, symbolizing his role as the chosen combatant, and continues along the warrior's path.
Finding an ally in the form of an enigmatic blind man (David Carradine, Kill Bill: Volume 2, Kung Fu) who offers his Zen wisdom to Cord and guidance in overcoming the challenges and obstacles left behind by Zetan to defeat any who may pursue him, Cord sets off to recover the book and fulfill his destiny…
The next time you are standing in front of a mirror, do the following: take a deep breath, close your eyes, and imagine Zardoz re-done as a spiritual martial arts epic. Now, open your eyes. There, hold it. Do you see that thing your face is doing? That scrunched-up twitching thing, halfway between smelling something foul and a full-blown epileptic seizure? That is the face you wear when watching Circle of Iron.
Before he died, martial art master Bruce Lee was hard at work on a conceptual screenplay entitled The Silent Flute, conceived to be a Zen martial art opus of magnificent proportions set in a mystical land of warriors and spiritual enlightenment. For help with the screenplay, he turned to student and fellow actor James Coburn and writer Stirling Silliphant, but disagreements between Coburn and Lee over shooting locations and Lee's rapidly inflating ego during the 1970s shelved the project indefinitely. After Lee's death, the screenplay was tossed around for a few years before finally being torn down, stripped and reworked into Circle of Iron, putting David Carradine in Lee's role.
Why Circle of Iron? Good question. The title makes absolutely no sense in context to the film, but was deemed "more appealing" than The Silent Flute. Go figure.
The rewritten screenplayCircle of Iron bears some resemblance to Lee's esoteric script, but toned down, cleaned up and simplified for public consumption. According to reports, director Richard Moore took one look at Lee's original script and dismissed it as "unfilmable," rumored to be an orgy of violence, sex and incomprehensible philosophy. It is clear that the filmmakers preserved Lee's vision expressing Zen ideology and enlightenment first and foremost, with somewhat mixed results. Some elements are right on the money, like the fantastical setting being but a mere backdrop to an introspective journey into personal development, of the path of the warrior and the eternal quest for knowledge and serenity. However, much feels lost in translation. Lee was skeptical that a Western audience could relate to such a film, and indeed, the film feels deliberately vague, like a rough caricature of characters and plot points. It seems that what did survive the rewrite was either watered down and fairly mundane, nothing more obtuse than the average episode of Kung Fu, or so imperceptible as to be stupefying.
No matter how you slice it, Circle of Iron is stylish, beautiful and oh so horrendously bad. Disjointed, hokey, overly dramatic, predictable and pointless, its plot stinks out loud, but admittedly makes for great eye candy on the screen. The unique and original universe created in a distant and exotic land full of Asian and Middle Eastern references, martial artists and monsters, it is clear a lot of love and good intentions went into bringing Lee's vision to the screen, but the end result is so thoroughly ridiculous as to be laughable. Despite its auspicious origins, the loincloths, bad haircuts, lousy makeup, hokey dialogue and stupid plot bring the film down into the basement of B-movie fare.
In terms of success, little works in Circle of Iron. The acting borders on the drug-induced; the plot is a mumbo-jumbo of preposterous story points and watered-down quotes from the Tao Te Ching, and the fighting…well. Let's just say that if Lee been alive to see his film project come to fruition, he probably would have died of embarrassment in seeing how poor the fight sequences came out. Slow, edited badly and thoroughly unbelievable, they are an embarrassment. Much of the film's blame lies with the hero Cord, a role originally to be played by James Coburn, but handled here by television character actor Jeff Cooper, who is painfully, painfully bad in the role. His is an abysmally poor performance; campy, over-the-top and preposterous in delivery and dialogue, he has an acting range that goes from overly dramatic to William Shatner. Small cameos from established actors like Roddy McDowall and Christopher Lee do nothing to alleviate the pain, as each ham up their role like a New York deli. Only Carradine seems to be having any fun here. With a half-smirk on his face throughout the film, it is as if he realizes exactly how silly and preposterous Circle of Iron is, and figures hell, he better enjoy himself. He fills no less than four roles throughout the film, playing the blind master, the Monkeyman, Death and Changsha, half of them virtually unrecognizable.
Now, for the good news: the film itself might be a laughing stock, but the DVD itself is no joke. Like may Blue Underground releases, it is nothing short of a technical powerhouse. Re-mastered in high definition, Blue Underground put a lot of work into restoring the picture quality here, and it shows. Some print damage crops up along with noticeable color flickering, but the film looks great overall—solid black levels, saturated colors and sharp detail. Say what you want about the film itself, but one cannot deny the location shots are stunning. Filmed in Bet Shean, Israel (same place the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar was shot) the immediate proximity of ruins, exotic beaches, desert and mountainous hills perfectly capture the otherworldly atmosphere of Circle of Iron.
In terms of audio, our cup runneth over with kickassery. If the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX soundtrack wasn't enough, we also get a full-blown DTS-ES 6.1 Surround track to complement. I favor the DTS track personally, with its noticeably fuller fidelity and attention to detail, but both are fierce and full, capturing the fake punching sound effects and delicate ambient noises with excellent precision. Dialogue is often mixed quieter than expected, and may have you playing the volume-adjust game from time to time. The score is a mix of corny 1970s mood music and Kwai Chang Caine-style Asian flute playing, and fits the film's tone perfectly. One could argue that the film audio itself is fairly quiet and reserved and therefore undeserving of such surround sound muscle, but whom are we to resist? I'll take it if they're offering, baby. To round out the audio, one can also select a modest Dolby 2.0 Surround track (for those lacking the hardware) as well as two mono tracks—the original, and a French dub. It is always nice to see a film's original mono track included for posterity, but in this case, I'd stay the hell away from it. It sounds dreadful in comparison to the sublime surround tracks.
The first disc contains the film along with a commentary track with director Richard Moore, who speaks candidly and openly about his involvement in the film. Moore was a DP by trade, and this was his first feature film, and I like his refreshing wisdom and honesty here, freely admitting that many of his projects in the past were junk, and that despite its total lack of commercial success, he is clearly quite proud of Circle of Iron, feeling that he created something meaningful. No comment, but I dig his enthusiasm. Also on the first disc are some theatrical trailers and TV spots.
On the second disk, we get three featurettes' fifteen-minute interview with David Carradine, a thirty-minute interview with co-producer Paul Maslansky and a thirty-minute interview with martial arts coordinator Joe Lewis. All three are detailed and informative, going into decent back story about the production of the film. A twenty-five minute audio interview with co-writer Stirling Silliphant dug up from a very old recording is also included, with some nasty fidelity, but is nice to have for posterity sake. We also get a scroll-through on-screen text history of the film by Davis Miller & Klae Moore, some poster/still galleries, and a first draft of The Silent Flute by Bruce Lee, James Coburn and Stirling Silliphant (for those with computers). A solid amount of material, to say the least.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Drugs. If you had lots of drugs, and I mean lots of drugs, Circle of Iron would no doubt be as profound and entertaining a cinematic experience as one could find, but without the drugs, the film is a screaming mess. Did I mention drugs?
All kidding aside, a campy thrill can be found here, if you really put your mind to it. Circle of Iron scrapes the bottom of the barrel in terms of bad B-movie fodder, but certainly no worse than the legion of other bad martial art films. Enough of Lee's true intentions survive in the film to give it a surreptitiously spiritual element, certainly more than the average popcorn fare. And I admit, there is a perverse enjoyment to Circle of Iron's goofy charms, in Cord's devilish grin as he slowly puts things together. If you are a purveyor of such cinema, Circle of Iron is certainly no worse than any of the thousands of bad martial art films out there.
An ambitious, but forgettable piece of 1970s martial arts and fantasy, Circle of Iron is a train wreck of good intentions. One can certainly appreciate the underlining root of the film, a personal work from Bruce Lee rooted in Zen philosophy and spiritual enlightenment but alas; the tree that sprung up from these roots is a big mess of poor acting, bad dialogue and nonsensical story. I wasn't kidding when I compared the film to Zardoz.
Film-bashing aside, you certainly can't knock the technical presentation. Blue Underground continues their fine tradition of quality DVD releases with Circle of Iron: 2-Disc Special Edition. For fans of fantasy martial art hybrid films of the 1970s, or really die-hard Bruce Lee fans, Circle of Iron is worth a look. Or, if you're really drunk and bored at a video store, I could see this film being good for a laugh.
It has its place in history…just not in my book.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Director Richard Moore
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